Thursday, December 29, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Titanic (1953)

 

Directed by Jean Negulesco
Barbara Stanwyck
Clifton Webb
Audrey Dalton
Robert Wagner
Thelma Ritter
Richard Basehart
Harper Carter
Brian Aherne

The first that I had ever heard of the sinking of the Titanic was one Saturday evening when my family sat down to watch this particular film on the old NBC  Saturday Night at the Movies. I remember it well because I don't think we were planning on watching it at the time. As I recall, the only reason that we did so was because the neighbors kind of invited themselves over for their own personal viewing  since they didn't have a television of their own. They weren't part of the snobbish upper class like those of us fortunate to own one of these technological marvels known as television.  Just kidding of course.

The reason they didn't have a set wasn't because they couldn't afford one. It was because their religion didn't allow them to own one. Yeah, that's how it works sometimes. Pray on Sunday, watch the neighbor's TV on Saturday. What does this have to do with this movie? Not a damn thing. It's just one of those little anecdotes that I throw in to a review once in a while to entertain the swarming masses who flock to read my reviews every day and to prove I am not a figment of your imagination.

Since seeing this version back in the early sixties, I have read Walter Lord's book A Night To Remember, saw the movie version of that book, painfully sat through two terrible TV movies on the subject, was incredibly bored by the fictional book Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler,  took a chance on the film version of that book to discover it was even worse, and finally was totally enthralled by James Cameron's version.

Then there were the documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. Not be outdone on anything Titanic, Cameron contributed even more to the Titanic phenomenon with his 3D film, Ghosts of the Abyss. And there are probably a lot more articles, books, and Titanic stuff I've read or watch but have since forgotten. I mean, how many times and in how many different ways are there to watch an ocean liner get up close and personal with a huge white popsicle which repays the favor by poking a hole in it's under belly?

But if you accept this 1953 movie on its own terms and remember that Hollywood had their own special way of fantasizing and romanticizing every thing when it came to historical events, then the movie is perfectly acceptable entertainment.

The film opens with a magnificent shot of ice breaking off, and falling into the sea. Okay, so the IMDB says that it's technically wrong and wouldn't happen that way.  I don't think that the viewers in 1953 cared a whole helluva lot. To be honest with you, this viewer in 2008 doesn't much give a crap either. It's just a cool thing to watch and is a great way to grab your attention quicker than a runaway booger.

Just as Cameron did 44 years later, this Titanic wraps its stern around a fictional story. Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) is taking her two kids Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) on The Titanic in order to get them away from her husband Richard (Clifton Webb). It seems she has decided that her kids have begun to lose their sense of values and feels a trip back to the United States will help them put their lives into the proper perspective.

Why have they lost their perspective? If you've seen the other two Titanic films or even just read my reviews than you should be aware by now that those in the elite class were a rather hoity-toity snobbish, nose stuck up in the air kind of crowd and Julia is just a down home Dolly Parton kind of piss ant country gal.

Well, as down home as you can be in Mackinac, Michigan. IMDB says it's pronounced Mackinaw although the spelling is correct. In the movie they pronounce it the way it is spelled but wouldn't you think that if anybody knew how to pronounce it Julia would?

Julia describes her daughter Annette to Richard as "having become an arrogant little prig.” Which is a little bit redundant since the word prig means arrogant. So in fact, Annette is an arrogant, arrogant. See, I can figure these things out just like the IMDB. I know because I looked it up in my Funky Wagnalls.

Another thing I figured out as I re-watched the film for this review is that it suddenly occurs to me that for all the snooty passengers in first class, there must have been three times as many stewards and bellhops as there were passengers. And no, I'm not going to count them to make sure.

When Julia's husband Richard discovers her plan at the last minute, and not having a ticket of his own, he entices a steerage passenger to sell him his ticket after he assures the trusting gentlemen  that he’ll see to it his wife and kids make the voyage okay. Richard is King of the hoity toity crowd. He's like Cal Hockley only older and with a nicer temperament. And money may not buy you love, but it’ll certainly book you passage on Titanic no matter how late of an arrival you may be.  I guess there wasn’t time for Richard to win his in a poker game just before the ship sailed.

Richard  wastes no time in confronting his wife, because he is not quite able to understand her reason for running off to slum around in the U.S. with the colonists.  But he is determined to take the kids back to England with him. And the best way to do that is by incorporating the old turn the kids against the spouse scenario. It works every time.

The battle of words continues throughout the film and it's a lot of fun just watching Webb and Stanwyck carry on their verbal sparring matches and finding new ways to one up the other in one scene after another. Give some credit also to screenwriters Walter Reisch, Charles Bracket and Richard Breen for giving the actors some sharp tongued words to chew on throughout the film.

 
As the film progresses, Julia begins to see that Richard has the upper hand but what Richard doesn't know is that Julia is carrying a naughty little secret which actually means she has the joker and the joker is wild. So finally, in a really terrific scene  between two greats, Julia reveals all by laying her cards on the table leaving Richard looking like someone who just had his three kings nipped by a full house.

Of course you'll have to watch the film to see that but if there is one thing this film does have going for it, it is some excellent performances by the cast from top to bottom. Sure it is all a bit soap operish and meant to tug at your heart strings, but in this film Director Jean Negulesco doesn't want to settle for a tug; he wants to wrap a rope around the old ticker and give the damn thing some good old fashioned hard yanks.

In Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, he centered his story around a rich girl poor boy relationship and I'm not sure whether or not the idea came from a sub plot in this film but you'll see certain similarities.

This movie's version of Rose is Annette Sturges who meets poor boy Jack equivalent Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner). Except Jack was a painter and Giff is an athlete so there will be no naughty painting scenes with Audrey Dalton. Really a shame too, because she is absolutely a knockout. And although Giff gets to dine in first class since he's traveling with the tennis team, we still know he's just a Midwestern ragamuffin because the P on his shirt stands for Purdue, not Princeton.

Initially, Annette spurns his advances, but later decides to dance one dance with him to please her mother with whom she had an argument. Julia wants Annette to start hanging around with average all-American fellows who have their varsity letters while Annette seems to be the type who would take a guy like Billy Zane's Cal and jump his bones since she seems to have been training all her life to be affiliated with the hoity toity set.

Ah, but Hollywood being what it is and scripts being what they are, we know that underneath that cool and cold exterior of Annette beats the heart of a commoner. It goes without saying that Giff will melt Annette’s frigid exterior because love aboard the Titanic is a many splendored thing. 



Thelma Ritter, one of the truly great character actors of all time, is also on hand as a card playing scene stealing no nonsense Maude Young. I guess she's supposed to like Molly Brown only skinnier. But she is great as she always was in practically every film she co-starred in which is why she may be the best character actress of the century.

A young Richard Basehart shows up in a small but edgy role as a priest questioning his faith. He is on his way home to tell his family that his services are on longer needed by the Catholic Church. It seems he has lost himself in the bottle because he's seen just one too many scenes of misery as a priest and can't handle it. It's a good performance by Basehart, and one would have hoped he would have gone on to do something besides commanding The Seaview in the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Then again, since this ship ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic, it may have been good practice for commanding a submarine.




As for  details about the real life  passengers,  a few of them show up but most are fictional. The way I understand it, at the time this film was made many of the survivors were still alive or their direct descendants so there was some worry about being sued for using real identities, particularly by the family of of Bruce Ismay who decided to sit this trip out along with ship designer Thomas Andrews. But, there are a few passengers portrayed, such as Isador (Roy Gordon) and Ida Strauss (Hellen Van Tuyl) and their big scene where she refuses to leave her husband behind is heartbreaking. You'll also recognize the same scene from A Night to Remember. I think this scene was in Cameron's version at one time also but ended up on the cutting room floor as Special Edition DVD fodder. I do believe that the elderly couple lying in the bed together as Titanic is sinking in Cameron's version is supposed to be the Strauss's.

However, if you are looking for an accurate and realistic portrayal of the sinking of Titanic, you won’t find it in this film. It is very much Hollywoodized, and is filled with an over abundance of both factual and technical errors that may have been overlooked in 1953, but wouldn’t be in today’s age of film scrutiny. You can find an extended list of these errors at the IMDB and it's very entertaining, but those mistakes do not detract from the overall dramatic impact of the film. Just pretend you're Titanic ignorant and pretend there aren't mistakes. Because in the grand scheme of thing, it's the previously mentioned romanticizing and fantasizing that counts in this version and when that big baby hits the old ice bergarooni, all these stories have to come to a resolution in some form or fashion so get out the old White Star Liner official hanky or the Titanic Sized box of Kleenex and have at it.

While it will never be mentioned in the same breath as Cameron’s film, or even the 1958 film A Night to Remember, it is still a film well worth your time and effort to seek out if you haven’t ever done so. The performances are all top notch, and it is time that you got off your dead lazy asses and start watching some of these greats and appreciate the work and craftsmanship that went into them. In other words, don't be so hoity toity.  And if I have to give you that bit of advice, that means I have no choice but to give Titanic my grade of a B.

And this film is as good of a place as any to start. Heck, buy the DVD, it isn't that much and you can get it cheap enough so that you don't have to be one of the snobby upper class to be able to afford it. With special features such as commentary by Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton, documentaries and newsreels you can't really go wrong.   And no, you don't need to wait for it to be colorized. But hey Fox, that would have been a cool idea for a 100th anniversary of the sinking!  Probably too late for that though..

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Come to the Stable (1949)

Come to the Stable (1949)
starring
Loretta Young
Celeste Holm
Hugh Marlowe
Elsa Lanchester
Thomas Gomez
Dorothy Patrick
Basil Ruysdael
Dooley Wilson
Regis Toomey
Written
by
Oscar Millard
Sally Benson
based on a story by
Clare Booth Luce
Directed
by
Henry Koster

In my review of The Lemon Drop Kid, I reminisced about the olden days of yore, when the peasants were relegated to choosing between three whole (yes, count them, THREE!) TV channels, if they were lucky enough to live in a major urban area.

Some areas of the country couldn’t even manage to have one or two that they could pull in without putting up a massive aerial 300 feet above their house. Since I’m absolutely sure you read my particular treatise on Lemon Drop, you already know that back in those days every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day or even Christmas week the local stations would yank out every Christmas themed movie they could lay their green and red knitted reindeer mittens on. When there weren’t enough of those to pass around, they mined the Hollywood Library for any story that featured priests or nuns, probably figuring that as long as somebody in the movie was getting chummy with God, that would be close enough.

For the most part they were right, because I still am of the opinion that films like The Bells of St. Mary's and Going My Way, and a few others, should be yanked out of the vault only after Thanksgiving has finished, and returned immediately to a time controlled lock safe at the stroke of Midnight on Christmas evening, in which the sixteen inch thick steel doors won’t reopen again until the first balloon floats it’s way down past Macy’s Department Store . Doesn’t Disney pull this crap with 90 per cent of their movies and make a fortune?

Come To The Stable is one of those films you can lump into the un-holiday category. It’s not about Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Years, but it does have the kind of spirit that people associate with the holiday such as good works and overcoming all odds to help mankind.

The story begins with two wise nuns bearing gifts arriving in Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child….no…that’s not right. Let’s try this again. The story begins with two nuns from the Order of Holy Endeavor, Sister Margaret (from France, by way of Chicago, played by Loretta Young), and Sister Scholastica (Live and direct from France, played by Celeste Holm) arriving in the snowy, wintry, freeze your ass off hills of Bethlehem, Connecticut. There is no sight of a donkey anywhere so we’re not here to witness a virgin give birth.

The two sisters have traversed the picturesque matte painted country side to build a children’s hospital out in the middle of Bumfuck, Connecticut because of a promise they made to God during the war.

Sister Margaret was the boss lady in charge of a children's hospital in Normandy when it became a potential target during a military campaign. Unable to evacuate the little tykes, the Sister prayed that the hospital would be spared. The hospital was still standing by the time the last mortar had been fired, so Sister Margaret made a promise to God that, in gratitude for saving the children, she would return to America to build a Children's Hospital for sick little tykes. Wait a second while I get out a hanky and dab away the tears.

The reason the nuns have chosen this particular spot in BF Connecticut to build their very own Seattle Grace Medical Facility, is because they saw a picture on a postcard of a painting “Come to the Stable” by one Miss Amelia Potts, who resides in Bethlehem in a studio/apartment converted from an Old Stable. Or as Ms. Scholastica tells Ms. Potts, “it was to us like the star of Bethlehem leading the way.”

That’s as good of a reason as any. I’m sure there have been far flimsier excuses to build hospitals in certain specified locations, what with payoffs and graft. Did you really expect them to check into such mundane items as the population of the area, whether or not a hospital was needed or even wanted, whether there were decent roads to get to and from the hospital, or rather they could install such mundane things as electricity or running water. You know, trivialities. Having a couple of nuns spending half the movie down at City Hall working out those details would hardly be worth watching, would it?

But Sisters Margaret and Sister Scholastica do have their unshakable faith, and as far as they are concerned, there’s nothing like a good prayer or rosary session to conquer all obstacles and make up for their naiveté in such worldly matters as….well…practically everything.
Having introduced themselves to Ms. Potts and explaining their impossible mission, the sisters invite themselves to stay a while, right about the time that Ms. Potts is ready to check the train schedules and send them on their way back to town.

 
After admiring a few more of the paintings of Ms. Potts’s landscapes, the nuns decide to build the hospital on a nearby hillside. At dawn, they bury a St. Jude Medal  on the site when they are attacked by a vicious wild animal and almost licked to death.


The dog’s name is Arson. The person chasing this overly friendly behemoth is Robert Mason (Hugh Marlowe) who manages to chase and calm down his overly friendly oversized mutt before he licks the nuns to death.

Mason quickly strikes up a conversation with the sisters and tells them that he owns the land and the house where Ms. Potts lives, that he  lives in an adjacent property, is a songwriter who often works late at night which means that he sometimes sleeping during the day. What he does not own is the land where the nuns want to build their children’s hospital.

Mason also informs  Sister Margaret that the person who owns the land they want to build on is a fellow by the name of Vito Corleone….I mean Luigi Rossi. Later in the day when they go to visit the Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) to get his approval, he is at first reluctant to give his permission for the sister to carry on, but agrees to give them 30 days to see if they can get the land for the hospital donated by Mr. Rossi and come up with another plan to raise the needed cash to build the darn thing.

Arriving back at the Bethlehem train station, the sisters are offered a lift home by Anthony (Dooley Wilson), who just happens to be Mason’s housekeeper. But it is Anthony who is given the ride, a ride in which we get one of those moments often seen in films of this type where nuns do unexpected things and not doing them well resulting in unpredictable hilarity. I’ll leave the unpredictable hilarity part up to your discretion.


The sisters borrow Mason’s Jeep and head to New York City to locate Luigi Rossi. If you haven’t figured out by now that Rossi is a gangster, then let me explain it to you: Luigi Rossi is a gangster.


Before meeting up with Don Rossi the two nuns make a quick pit stop at Saint Patrick's Cathedral  which enables them to do a few funny fish out of water bits nuns out of the convent bits, and enables the citizens of New York to  gawk at them as if they’d never seen two nuns in an open air jeep driving down the streets of downtown Manhattan before.

Or maybe they were wondering as I did why they weren’t suffering from exposure after having driven from Connecticut in freezing temperatures in the damn thing. Not only that, did I or did I not see a station wagon in Mason’s garage when the sisters picked up the jeep? Why didn’t Mason let them use that instead? And come to think of it, why is Anthony forced to drive around the Connecticut landscape with that nice luxury automobile sitting there? Yeah, I know.  That’s all minutiae and rather stupid details to be complaining about some sixty years after the fact, but cut me a break. I wasn’t alive in 1949 to complain.

Upon leaving the church, they get directions to Luigi Rossi’s place of business from one of the policemen who know him, but won’t arrest him. I guess that’s just the way it was in those days. Get to know your local mob leader but don’t detain him because you have 50 bucks riding on Ponder at Churchill Downs.


Rossi (Thomas Gomez) is going to use the land to build his retirement home when “things get too hot” for him, so donating the tract of land to a couple of nuns is out of the question. But God works in mysterious ways, especially in the scripts of Hollywood Movies, and it goes without saying that Sisters Margaret and Scholastica won’t come away empty handed.

As to why, well I won’t spoil it for you because you’ll probably find it all sad and touching as long as you can get it out of the back of your mind that Rossi has probably ordered his men to “put the finger on someone” more than once. But hey, if Marlon Brando can be lovable in The Godfather by ordering a horse’s head to be dumped in the bed of Jack Woltz, there’s no reason why we can’t sympathize with Mr. Rossi, who doesn’t order anybody’s demise, at least when he’s on the screen.

Back in Connecticut, Robert Mason is singing his latest tune for his girlfriend Kitty (Dorothy Patrick). Marlowe’s singing is atrociously dubbed by someone named Ken Darby. I don’t know how well Marlowe could sing, but he couldn’t have done any worse than Darby. Hell, I could have sung this tune better than Darby if I had been alive.  But there are some nice renditions of the song, so try a little Bobby Darin on for size.

Bobby Darin’s version of Through a Long and Sleepless Night would be recorded ten years later. Dorothy Patrick’s version was dubbed by Eileen Wilson. The best version I’ve heard was by Gloria Lynne, which you can also look up on YouTube. Just note that the quality on that one, recorded from a scratched up 45 is rather poor, which is why I didn’t use it here. This is the next best version.

The tune is called “Through a Long And Sleepless Night” and is a sure fire hit. Mason has also just been offered a Hollywood Contract which means he will be out of town for a few months. Both are events that will come into play later in the film. But to prove to us he is still a good guy (for now) Mason gives Sisters Margaret and Sister Scholastica $200 to share his good fortune with the church. It would seem the sisters are on a roll.

The next day they are driving around the country side in Mr. Mason’s jeep while they are reciting their rosary, Sisters Margaret and Scholastica have a flat. It would seem that having a flat is divine providence since the blowout occurs adjacent to an old Witch Hazel factory. The sisters talk the owner, Mr. Jarman (Walter Baldwin) into selling them the factory, for $50 dollars because he’s incredibly generous you see. Well, not exactly.


The $50 dollars is merely to give the Sisters a three month option until they can come up with $5,000 dollars, the amount the sisters believe they are buying the property for. What they don’t realize is that the $5000 dollars will be a down payment towards the real cost of $30000. When the Bishop discovers the true contract terms he is ready to send the nuns packing back to Gay Paree, because the Catholic Church has better things to do with its cash such as  putting it into a trust for the future defense fund of wayward Priests.

But a busload of extra nuns from France via central casting arrive just in the nick of time to help Sisters Margaret and Scholastica with their project, leaving the Bishop no choice but to give them another thirty days to complete their mission and to learn the English language, which absolutely none of them are familiar with.

Thirty days or not, accomplishing their objectives will not be easy. Mason returns from California and when he does, it’s No More Mr. Nice Guy. Not to mention there’s the matter of that aforementioned hit song he penned.

Late in the film we also have a case where real life will eventually imitate art instead of the other way around. Think Andrea Jaeger.

Come to the Stable is one of those films that despite being totally predictable in its manipulations, you can’t help but like it. This can be attributed in large part to the stellar casting. Loretta Young and Celeste Holm are the perfect nuns, so much so that they could just as easily have been plopped down into The Nun’s Story or Song of Bernadette.

You’ll have no problem believing their naiveté when it comes to such worldly matters as gangsters, mortgages, jeep driving, and parking tickets, even if it all seems a bit silly. These sisters are so incredibly pious, and their faith so overwhelming unabashed, that you half expect the Virgin Mary herself to come flying out of the clouds at any moment to build the hospital for them. Obviously she doesn’t do that, but I do suspect that she installed an invisible holy bubble around that jeep to keep the nuns warm. Those Connecticut winters can be deadly.

I went to Catholic schools for 10 years, and of all the sisters I knew in three different Catholic schools, not one of them even came close to demonstrating the holy reverence of these two. In fact, a couple of them even had their sadistic side, reminding me more of Sister Mary Stigmata from the The Blues Brothers than anything we see here. Maybe the Catholic Church should have been calling down to central casting for its supplies of priests and nuns.

In all those years I only observed one sister who could even come remotely close to the beauty exhibited by Young and Holm. No, I’m not talking about inner spiritual beauty. Both ladies look as if they were prepared to do a Max Factor commercial in order to round up donations for their hospital project. I never saw any hint of Vivid Impact Lipcolor 28 Rose Rage when Sister Marcia was telling our class what rotten little shits we were in the eighth grade for suggesting a couple of the girls were wearing falsies. Hey, it wasn’t me who started that rumor! But my hat’s off to the makeup department of 20th Century Fox. Maybe they should have donated their services to convents all over the world. A little rouge, a little lipstick, might have helped recruitment. But with or without makeup, the two nuns are positively radiant.

I really liked Hugh Marlowe more in this film than perhaps any other he appeared in, or at least through most of it. He’s actually a pretty good guy before morphing back into one of the despicably disdainful characters became noted for such as the one he played in this film. But as you’ll see, there’s a reason for that.

Elsa Lanchester, who made a whole career out of roles like this after having been betrothed to Mr. Frankenstein in the thirties, does well as poor eccentric Mrs. Potts, whose good nature Sisters Margaret and Scholastica prey upon throughout the film. But when I was growing up, you just didn’t say no to a nun, unless you were a bishop and even the bishop in this film has trouble kicking the sisters back to France. So I can sympathize with Amelia, which is why it’s almost shocking when she gets ticked off at Mr. Mason.


And I only thought of Lanchester’s most famous role as The Bride of Frankenstein only once or twice during the whole movie. It’s hard to escape that vision no matter what role she’s playing. Holm, Young, and Lanchester received Academy Award nominations. So I’m left scratching my head as to why this film has become somewhat obscure. Look Fox, if you aren’t going to do anything worthwhile with the movie such as a nice DVD release, sell the rights to Turner Classic Movies, Netflix, or Amazon where people can see it.

Come to the Stable was directed by Henry Koster, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Bishop’s Wife, a film he had made two years earlier. So he is in familiar territory here. Shackled to the Fox studio for this movie instead of a location shoot, he makes good use of close-ups, so we aren’t distracted too much by the fact that you’re within spitting distance of Hollywood and Vine.

The black and white cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is done very well. You’ll hardly notice that most of the Connecticut countryside is nothing more than matte paintings, or that much of the jeep rides are done against studio backdrops. I’ve seen other films that have also used this method extensively, and it isn’t done nearly as well as it is done here.

I like Come to the Stable. Its heart seems to be in the right place. Loretta Young and Celeste Holm do a lot to convince us that they could sell Satan a year’s supply of kindling to keep warm if they so desired. Yes, it’s predictable. Yes, the ending is almost anticlimactic. Yes, some of the nuns out of their element jokes are a bit much, but even you will have a hard time not feeling your heartstrings being tugged  in the closing scene when you see a certain someone in church looking up at a stained glass window. And if an old agnostic like me can enjoy a film such as this you should be able to as well which is why I have no choice but to give it a grade of B.

Updated:  Where can you see Come to the Stable? Well, when I suggested that it run on Turner Classic Movies, and on Feb 27, 2012, it did.  The film ran on Netflix streaming last year, but not so this year. There is one Amazon seller who will let you have it for about $24.00. He has a 96 percent approval rating so use your own discretion, because the DVD obviously is either an import or something else.  My copy, from which all these stills were taken, was recorded on an old VHS transferred to DVD from Fox Movie Channel where you may find the film on occasion.

And finally, don’t forget to check out my Clyde’s Stuff Facebook Page  which I post stories and videos of interest and update regularly.  Simply like the page and you can post or comment as you see fit as long as you keep it in bounds.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: One Magic Christmas (1985)

starring
Mary Steenburgen
Gary Basaraba
Harry Dean Stanton
Elizabeth Harnois
Robbie Magwood
Arthur Hill
Wayne Robson
Sarah Polley
Graham Jarvis



Some of the more successful Holiday films always seem to have an element of fantasy.  I guess that goes with the territory.  After all, it is the season of Santa Claus, Flying Reindeer, Red-nosed reindeer, Christmas Cookies, the North Pole, Gremlins, and  Elves. 

And let’s not forget the religious themes that  permeate the  holiday season.  That’s when the screenwriters trot out angels, lessons about why it is better to give then to receive, Christmas Ghosts of past, present and future, and discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  You know the drill.  It’s not about waking up to that big 60 inch screen flat screen stuffed  into your Christmas stocking.  It’s about giving and sharing, being with family, and doing unto others before they do it to you.  On the other hand, that 60 inch flat screen HD-TV does kind of help set the tone for the rest of the day.
 
I’ve always tried to have a good outlook about the holiday season, although some years it’s kind of tough.  As you get older, it seems to get more and more difficult to get into the Ho! Ho! Holiday spirit, especially when you seem to be living in a world inhabited by a growing population of Grinch's.  It’s even worse when some of those Imitation Scrooges inhabit the same dwelling as you do. 

But when things seem to be going totally in the crapper, a good Christmas film always seems to lift my spirits.  Or at least it did back in the day when there was someone around always willing to share the cinematic experience with me, regardless of how many times they had seen Chevy Chase screw up the holiday or George Bailey wished he’d never been born.  What really gets my goat is that some people can sit and watch a Lifetime movie five dozen times over, sometimes all in the same day.   But when you ask them to view a Christmas film they’ve seen maybe once or twice, they run away as if Santa had just dumped a hot lump of burning cool in their underwear.

But things could be worse.  Much worse.  If having a down and out Christmas is becoming the normal in your life, just visit the Grainger Family. 

To say that the Grainger Family is not having a good Christmas, is putting it mildly. The father, Jack (Gary Basaraba) has been laid off. His wife Ginny (Mary Steenburgen) is working long hours at the local supermarket as a cashier for low pay to help make ends meet. The children, Abbie and Cal (Elisabeth Harnois & Robbie Magwood) often overhear their parents arguing about money. To make matters worse the Grainger's are being evicted from their house, owned by the company Jack was laid off from and they have to be out by New Years.

Despite all these problems Jack and the children manage to keep a certain amount of Christmas spirit. Jack piddles his life away in the basement fixing bikes, including one for neighbor kid, Molly Monahan.  Without someone like Jack nearby, who has the Christmas Spirit in abundance, Dirt Poor Molly’s chances of having a bike would be zero percent.



Jack also has this dream of opening up his own bike shop, because let’s face it, the man has mad mechanical skills. But Ginny, says nah baby nah! You have to get a job, a real job, just like the shit job she’s working down at Glenn’s Supermarket where she has to cater to the young twerp Herbie who's her boss. 

 
This is one thing the film industry always gets right.  Having experienced this situation myself and knowing others who have, when you go to work for a young shit like Herbie who’s half your age or even more, they generally treat you as if you’ve just been secreted from a dog’s ass.  This is true.  I swear to it on a stack of gingerbread men. 

And Herbie is no exception.  He forces Ginny to work a double shift on Christmas Eve, simply because he knows her situation at home is desperate and she isn’t about to say no.  Herbie also has Ginny make his store announcements for him, for no particular reason, then gives her a load of crap about her line being backed up when he’s the cause of it.  So after surveying the situation at home and at the store, I’d have to say sorry Jack, it looks like it’s the AM/PM or 7 Eleven for you bud, and not bicycle city.

And then there’s the nasty customers Ginny has to put up with.  Customers like Harry Dickens (Wayne Robson), whom she has to deal with when she accidentally double rings a bag of chips, to which Harry shows why he’s in the running for customer jerk of the year.

Harry:  Hey, you already rang up those Dorito chips already.
Ginny:  Oh, okay.  You’re right, I’ll take it off your tote.
Harry (to another customer):  See what she tried to pull on me?  See that?  (then very loudly) Next time I’m going to the A&P.
Ginny:   Please.  Be my guest.  Next time go to the A&P!
Harry:  All right!
  So what does random jerkoff customer Harry have to do with this story?  You’ll find out.


Right behind Harry is the next customer, Molly Monaghan and her mother whose items come up to slightly more cash than she has on hand, not to mention she’s totally embarrassed by the fact that the cash she has on hands is actually food stamps.  I can see why she would be a bit sheepish.  This was smack dab in the middle of the St. Ronald Reagan era when he had the whole wide world convinced that every child bearing female on food stamps or government aid was a welfare queen riding off into the sunset in their government financed Cadillac's, thus stigmatizing those desperate and in need forever.  And as far as I can tell, the Repugnicant Party has only gotten worse since,  doling out billions to their corporate benefactors while squeezing the crap out of the rest of us.  

Mrs. Monaghan’s purchases come up to $26.83, but she only has $25 in stamps. Ginny, who despite having her own problems, offers to loan her the difference, showing Ms. Monaghan and us that beneath the Scrooge-like layers, there’s a heart encrusted in there somewhere.  But instead, of taking the loan, Ms. Monaghan puts back a box of snacks that she had bought for Molly.  Tough luck kid!

Jack is also conspiring with another friend and neighbor to collect money in order to obtain and fuel up a generator to light up the town’s Christmas Tree, because I guess the City Council says there isn’t enough money in the city coffers after having bought themselves a fleet of BMW’s.  And what does wife Ginny think of all this?  She thinks Jack is pretty much pissing his life away, and that the kids are annoying as hell every time the words Santa and Christmas come out of their mouth.

”I’m getting a little sick of hearing all this talk about Santa Claus from you,” she tells Abbie.


 
Ginny is in a mood so foul you might even think her body has been inhabited by the spirit of the Grinch, twice over, or that she was clone directly from the gene pool of Ebenezer Scrooge.    Therein lies the crux of this holiday entertainment. The question is whether or not Ginny can once gain find the spirit of Christmas and realize that the most important thing in life is still the love of your family and without that you’ve got nothing.

It's your basic Christmas movie plot, which means you need a Christmas crises intervention. In this case it comes in the form of Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton). 

We have already met Gideon at the beginning of the film.  He is sitting in a tree playing his harmonica when he is given his mission to head north to Medford, and help Ginny find her Christmas Spirit.  Why is he sitting in a tree playing his harmonica?  I guess that’s what Christmas angels do the rest of the year when they aren’t out interfering in the lives of people like Harry Bailey or in this case, Ginny Grainger.  Or maybe he gets his party groove on with Monica and Tess.  Details are sketchy.



Gideon meets up with Abbie when she sneaks out of the  house to mail a letter to Santa.  After magically retrieving her letter, he tells her how he became a Christmas Angel:

Gideon: Can you keep a secret?
Abbie: Yeah.
Gideon: Well, uh, I'm an angel. A Christmas angel.
Abbie: Oh, no, you're not, 'cause my dad told me you can't see angels. They're invisible.
Gideon: Well, they're invisible sometimes, but sometimes they have to show up.
Abbie: So, what's your name then?
Gideon: Gideon.
Abbie: Gideon? Was you a good person that died?
Gideon: Good person? Well, I was a cow hand... out, out west. And one Christmas, a long, long time ago, I was riding along the Snake River, and I heard this little... kid, uh, yelling to somebody, and, uh, so I jumped into the river to save him. Well, I saved him, all right, but I got myself drowned. 'Cause I didn't know how to swim. And, um, after that they, they made me a Christmas angel.
Abbie: What do Christmas angels do?
Gideon: Well, my job is to, every Christmas, have to help one person, that's feeling down, to get into the Christmas spirit.
Abbie: One person?
Gideon: Yeah.
Abbie: Could it be my mom? Could you make my mom like Christmas better, Gideon?
Gideon: Yeah. I think so, if you'll help me?
Abbie: Okay.

Gideon tells Abbie that instead of mailing the letter to Santa, to give it to Ginny to mail instead because this will help Ginny get into the Christmas Sprit.  But it’s not going to be easy.  Ginny is dead set against getting the kids anything more than a tea set and an etch-a-sketch.


Gideon pops in to see Abbie once again, and in a bit of showboating, busts her snow globe and then makes it so it isn’t broke, explaining that’s what they have to do for Ginny.  She’s broke, but the only one who can fix Ginny is herself.  He also warns Abbie that no matters what happens, not to be afraid, and that if she needs to find him, just listen for the sound of a harmonica coming from the nearest tree. Well, not really, but he does tell her to check out the angel at the town’s Christmas Tree and he’ll show up as if he’s the first cousin of Mary Poppins. 


You have to hand it to the writer (Thomas Meehan) for coming up with what happens next. I understand there must be a little tragedy in life for someone to find the true meaning of Christmas,  but Meehan gives Ginny enough heartache and tragedy to fill three or four Christmas movies because her Christmas hasn’t been quite crappy enough up to this point in time.  It makes Jacob Marley and his ghostly crew seem like a day in the park with Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey, and Bashful, just by way of comparison.
 

In short order we get: a bank robbery, a murder, a kidnapping, and a car crashing off a bridge upside down into a river. How's that for Christmas cheer folks? It does tend to make your worries about your Christmas credit card bills seem kind of insignificant by comparison.  And it’s even worse than that because out of necessity I’m leaving out some very important details.



And therein lies the biggest problem with this film.  For a movie that’s supposed to be uplifting, it piles on so much darkness and despair that by the time  the lights do come on so to speak, you’ll be  grateful  just to be able to breathe a sigh of relief let alone think about breaking out into a chorus of Deck the Halls or as Gideon would prefer, Hark The Herald Angels sing.  Talk about a movie being downbeat.  This may be a Disney movie, but I’d give serious thought to not sitting the younger tykes down in front of the TV to watch, at least not without letting them in on the plot beforehand.  Even the street this family lives on is photographed in a way that’s more fitting for Tim Burton movie.



I admire Mary Steenburgen a lot as an actress, and have loved most of her work from Goin’ South, to Melvin and Howard, to Time After Time and more.  But she is given an almost impossible task here.  Initially, Ginny has to show that she’s a loving and caring parent so that we can root for her redemption, but at the same time the director or writer or somebody also required her to be a cold, joyless, heartless, self absorbed, bitch, especially around  Abbie and Cal.  You can’t mix oil and water.



As if that’s not  enough, Ginny  then has to go from that mixed up frame of mind to one of total despair when she is forced to live out her worse nightmares.  Moments later she finds partial solace, which should have been enough to give her a new attitude, but it doesn’t.  Gideon still has to work a little more Angel magic to get Ginny to come around, but by the time we get to that point, I wasn’t buying it. 

There may not be an actress alive who could have accomplished all of this and do it believably, especially when it’s all so discouraging.  Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes early on of letting us visit the Grainger’s when times were good so we could see a nice Ginny in action would have helped.  I mean, with an 89 minute running time as it is, adding on those few moments to make us actually give a crap about this woman wouldn’t have hurt. 

Gary Basaraba who plays Jack is pretty generic and isn’t given much to work with.  He plays a good guy like he’s a good guy, and that’s all the part needs and that’s all that one can ask.  

Harry Dean Stanton is quite deadpan as Gideon.  I think I figured out how Gideon drowned.  He was saving that kid in the river, and having done so, he fell into a coma.   It’s fitting and proper that he’s dead because he’s not very lifelike as an angel.  But he does get the job done and that’s all that matters in a film such as this.  Just don’t invite him to your Christmas Party as entertainment.  You’d be better off with a mime.

Elizabeth Hanois and Robbie Magwood come off a lot better than the adults here, which is good considering that after Gideon and Ginny, the film rests on the very young shoulders of Hanois, who was all of five years or maybe six years old when the movie filmed.  The  worst thing that can happen are child actors who will either be encouraged to be overly cute and sweet, or they’ll come off as obnoxious brats.  That does not happen here.  Abbie and Cal do in fact exhibit the kind of behavior one might expect from kids their age with the caveat that I’m not sure any kid Abbie’s age that I know would begin talking openly to an unshaven scruffy rag-a-muffin person like Gideon claiming he was an angel.  You shouldn’t talk to strange strangers, kiddies.  But whatever.   Hanois alone is almost enough to save this film all by herself.  She’s perfect even if you do have to check the captioning once in a while to understand her.  But five and six year olds talk that way.

Arthur Hill  makes an appearance as the Grandfather.  Hill was an excellent actor, but was given nothing to do here beyond giving Abbie a Christmas Globe then bringing some welcome news to Ginny later in the film.  I would suggest watching him in some old episodes of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, but you’ll play hell finding those anywhere.  Look for them in aisle B, write next to the old Ben Casey episodes.

Back in 2003 I posted a shorter review of this film on the IMDB.  Only four out of ten people cared for my film expertise and that review taught me a lesson:  If you go knocking Christmas Movies or Classic Disney Movies, people are going to get their panties all bent out of shape.  But having watched again for this review, my opinion hasn’t changed at all.

I didn’t hate One Magic Christmas.  I just don’t care for it much and it wouldn't have mattered if my Christmas mood was good or just plain lousy.  Too much of it is way too gloomy, and Ginny is just not likable until it’s too late for any hope of our recovery, let alone hers.  You probably might like it a lot better if you’re already high on Christmas Spirit, but don’t expect to stay that way watching this stuff.  If you’re looking for the right vehicle to lift your spirit, then may advice is to find it elsewhere.  And if I have to give that kind of advice I have no choice then to show my holiday spirit by slapping a grade of C on One Magic Christmas.